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Hair Braiding in The Gambia

My Magazine 2023/04
6 min
Braids have become a global fashion trend, worn by people of all backgrounds, from Hollywoods biggest stars to influencers from Asia. But in Africa, braids are not just a style; instead, they a unique form of art. Braiding is an ancient craft whos origins can be traced to over 5000 years ago. It was first discovered among the people of Southern Africa. Africans have been braiding their hair for many years, and it is an integral part of African culture and tradition.

Narrations relay that cornrows are the oldest braiding style. According to history, a French ethnologist and his team discovered a stone-age rock painting depicting a woman with braids feeding her baby. Braiding styles and patterns were a unique way to identify a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power and religion.

Braiding was then a social art, and it still is in The Gambia and other parts of the world. Because of the amount of time some braids take to be made, women will take this time to socialize and help each other out. Two to three people can help in braiding one persons hair. It first started with elders braiding their children. Later young girls begin to learn from their elders while watching them braid someone else. Young girls would start to practise on each others hair when they met on local playgrounds or streams. Braiding was also a way of bonding and spending time with one another.

Women have to endure sitting for hours to braid their hair. Some tribes have complicated hair, which means braiding takes even longer, and a person has to endure lots of pain during and after the braiding. Nevertheless, pain does not stop Gambian women from doing different and intricate hairstyles to look their best. Braiding is a form of pride for the Gambian women.

The different tribes of The Gambia have their different braids. The Mandinkas, the Fulas, the Wolofs, etc., can be identified according to their hairstyle. In the past, women with higher social status will have the most intricate braids donned with beads, cowries, or well-carved materials. Women from less privileged families will wear the simple style of their tribe with little cowries and wooden beads.

Today things have changed. Hairstyles are more or less a means of beautification. They don’t indicate a person's status or tribe anymore. Mandinka can wear a Fulani braid, while a Jola can do Serer braids. People wear hairstyles according to their preferences, and every time people braid their hair, the style is different.




When someone says I want to plait cornrows, it means they just want to braid simple cornrows with no extension or feed-in. Children and school children mostly braid cornrows in different styles, from ponytails to zig-zag cornrows. These type of braids is allowed in many schools. Elderly women also love to do them because it is faster and easier to accomplish. In The Gambia, you don’t have to go to a hair salon to have beautiful cornrows. In every compound, one or two people know how to do them. 



Raawu are twists - either with extension or natural hair only. This style of braiding is very well-loved by locals. It is also very expensive to do because of the unique technique involved in twisting the hair. Not many people know how to do these type of braids. It is mostly done at the salon, and it takes longer.



Life are also known as box braids in the Western world. The braids can be made with extension or braided using your own hair only. However, many do this hairstyle with extensions to increase the durability of the hairstyle. If you want box braids, use your stay in the Gambia to get them done in hair salons for an affordable price or ask a Gambian friend or family to do it for you at an even better rate.



It is a Wollof word meaning carry along. It is the cornrow feed in hair braiding. Because natural hair is braided along with the hair extension, locals began to call it tibalé. You can braid beautiful tibalé at salons. It is good to know that the tibalé can be a bit uncomfortable because the hair is pulled together firmly to keep it tight. You might want to take it off the first few days because of the painful tension. It is always good to look for someone who doesn’t pull the hair tightly or ask the person braiding your to reduce the pressure. Gambian women will still do this hairstyle and bear the pain for the first few days.



Traditional braids are not very common now. They are braided only during special occasions, events, ceremonies and performances. You can find people with traditional braids in cultural performances, wedding ceremonies, naming ceremonies, musical videos or beauty pageant contests. Many salons don’t have people who can braid the traditional braids, but you can find someone among the tribes who can braid their traditional "Letu Chosaan".

When in The Gambia, you might want to get it for yourself. It will be easy to find a lady with good braiding skills and fast hands, used to braiding for many years. If you can’t find her, we know some. Contact us at or give us a call at +220 214 0001, and we will be happy to help.

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